Reflections on the American tradition known as Thanksgiving
During this week of the American federal holiday known as “Thanksgiving” I spent time heeding the call of Indigenous community connection and - yes, even Indigenous content creators - to seek out truth telling of their people and the history of this land. My conclusion of the truth is that genocide and mass displacement happened here.
TikTok creator Charlie | Amáyá (@dineaesthetics) teaches that colonialism is a system of technologies that regulates our relations to land and people with the intention to remove, displace, and eliminate an indigenous people, land and life. From @dineaesthetics, I learned more about the insidious ways that this harm continues to be inflicted here in America, like the use of Indigenous Peoples as mascots, street names, and military designations.
After watching a powerful visual of land occupied by Indigenous People from 1783-2010 from Sarah Perdiguerra available on YouTube, I wanted to hear stories of Indigenous resistance. I turned to Episode 4 of the podcast This Land: The Treaty which chronicles the story of Major Ridge and his son John Ridge, a Cherokee leader murdered in 1839 for signing a treaty with the United States. Ultimately the promise he died for was broken; the Ridges were forced to walk the Trail of Tears after losing their ancestral land and sovereignty in so-called Georgia. Of this time in American history, This Land host Rebecca Nagle shares that “during his lifetime, Major Ridge witnessed one of the largest migrations in U.S. history, one that isn’t taught in school. Millions of white settlers moved from the Atlantic coast, west onto Native land after the Revolutionary War. This migration was really a land grab.”
Though my ancestors were still in our shtetls in Eastern Europe at the time, I wanted to know if there were any Jews involved in this encroachment, and what role they played. I found an interview between Jewish Currents writer Hadas Binyamini and author of The Jews’ Indian: Colonialism, Pluralism, and Belonging in America (Rutgers University Press, 2019), a book about the history of Jewish encounters with indigenous peoples in the 19th and early 20th century United States and the stories Jews told each other about these encounters. Author David S. Koffman, the J. Richard Shiff Chair for the Study of Canadian Jewry and Associate Professor of History at York University in Toronto, speaks about the historical relationship between colonialism, diaspora, and whiteness, and contemporary Jewish discussions about indigeneity in the US and Canada.
He shares in the interview linked here that:
[his] interest is in seeing colonial actors as people who had ordinary economic and political concerns, who are desperate in their own way. I think that this study forces us to reckon with some of the political and moral ambiguities of settler-indigenous relations. Jews in the 19th century, like many others who arrived in the frontier West seeking to eke out a living, were often fleeing hunger, political violence, and disenfranchisement. Though they arrived as more powerful than Native Americans, they were not official state actors—they were, in a certain sense, refugees. We tend to think of the agents of settler-colonialism as military or political elites who created the conditions for expansion. But many were just pawns in the larger process. Jewish-Indigenous encounters were complicated; it’s not really a matter of good guys and bad guys, even though there are beneficiaries and losers.
This leaves me wondering how else might my understanding of myself as a white immigrant Jew on Southern soil be seen as a pawn in someone else’s pursuit of being a beneficiary of the American project. In what other global projects might I be a pawn?
The resources linked above and below teach that the subjugation of Indigenous Peoples was inherent to the model of Colonialism; in fact it is the main necessary part that made Colonialism succeed. Colonizers almost always relied on trading successfully with Indigenous People at first (or just asking for provisions depending on how dire things were, and how receptive the native inhabitants were to the new arrivals), and then attempted to gain control of those populations and economies once they got a foothold on the land by trading or being given supplies. What does this mean for me, someone who came here in my lifetime? I live in the contradictions: I have arrived here and both been given white privileged access to supplies, resources and opportunities, and see myself and am treated as part of a colonized, marginalized ancestry that needs solidarity with other oppressed people to survive, and ultimately defeat the white supremacist machinery that seeks to keep us fearful and divided.
These aren’t comforting questions, and I invite you to sit with me in growing our collective consciousness over the upcoming holiday of Chanukkah. Click on this link for more information and to register for community events.
Additional Resources for Continued Learning: Settler Colonialism & Things Taken (Thanksgiving)
- Our Sacred Waters: Kuuyam as a Decolonial Possibility
- Settler Fragility & Why Settler Privilege is so hard to talk about
- I am The River
- Settler Colonialism Primer
- America’s Jewish Colonizers
Talking with family & friends about Things Taken / Thanksgiving
- Rethinking Thanksgiving Toolkit
- Talking to your Family and Friends about Settler Colonialism
- A Brief Guide for Things-taken Discussions with Friends and Family
- A Better Way to Celebrate